The ever-hungry belly of commerce has bland eating habits. In the case of present concern Craig David, our collective palate is getting served a dish that tastes distressingly similar to what we ate last week. And the week before that. The Southampton, England-born balladeer has been the beneficiary of a massive hype campaign intended to whet our appetites for something new from the mother country. But the British have never been known for their cuisine. Matter of fact, the whole Craig David experience leaves me with a strange craving for McNuggets.
Devote 57 minutes and some seconds to David’s U.S. debut, Born to Do It, and it’s easy to walk away with the impression that this brother is, like, a demi-Usher, or, better yet, a semi-Sisqóor Tyrese minus the boulevard credentials and film roles. At the risk of gratuitous dissing, one could make the case that the only diff between David and the current crop of homegrown R&B practitioners is that our boy is using both his first and last names. It’s obvious from the very first track: “She knocked at the door/I was standing with the keys in my hand to the 4-by-4/Jumped in my ride checking that nobody saw,” David sings, delivering lyrics that are standard-issue ghetto-epicure R&B. And that’s precisely the problem: This kinda stuff just doesn’t sound convincing coming from a Brit. Dude has a credibility deficiteither that or all the ersatz playas in the U.K. have been spending way too much time watching BET.
David certainly ain’t the first (and shan’t be the last) crooner to be guilty of musical plagiarism, but damn if we need British singers taking away gigs from hardworking American knockoffs. Time was when U.K. hopefuls had to bring a whole ‘nother vibe to the tableà la Loose Ends, Soul II Soul, Des’ree, and Jamiroquaiif they were hoping to get love on this side of the Atlantic. But recent imports (can you say Robbie Williams?) have hit these shores in what’s less a British invasion than a musical reconnaissance mission. It’s enough to make a brother ask, Ain’t this what all those cats in Genoa were protesting about?
It wouldn’t be nearly as bad if David weren’t the kind of artist who might actually have something original to put down. Word has it that he cut his teeth in British underground clubs and carved out an individual niche in the two-step scene. And the man’s star is in midascent on the European circuits. Although David isn’t a particularly powerful vocalist, he does bring an appealingly understated approach to his singing that recalls fellow Brit Sade, who doesn’t need a megawatt larynx because she’s got an indelible style.
But it’s hard to believe that Born to Do It wasn’t calibrated to give an underground phenomenon that most critical of commercial virtues: crossover appeal. David’s promo materials are quick to point out that his 2000 single “Fill Me In” made the then-18-year-old “the youngest British male to score a #1 hit.” I get the feeling that during the move from prodigy to product, something essential was lost in translation. The moral of this story is that, in the music business, sometimes the former does in the lattereven when the artist has some real talent.
Things start out promisingly enough: “Fill Me In,” a saccharine-sweet tale of love on the down-low, is carried by teasing acoustic guitar, airy string flourishes, and David’s light, clean, tongue-tripping vocals. Classic it ain’t, but it’s most definitely infectiouswhich helps the song transcend its hackneyed lover-man lyrics. But a track later, David’s vocal paraphrase of R. Kelly’s “Fiesta” on “Can’t Be Messing ‘Round” again raises some authenticity questionsas did David’s crooning of Usher tracks at his free concert in Central Park last week. That simply isn’t how it’s done over hereon these shores, you get to quote, sample, and steal only from artists whose last hit came prior to the first Bush administration.
On that same score, the decidedly Kellyesque “Rendezvous” features the winning line “We’ll be gettin’ some/Gettin’ jiggy just for fun.” Driven by wispy guitar and understated keys, the track isn’t all that different from its discmates, pointing up another problem of David’s: Sonically, Born to Do It tends toward sameness. The musical backdrops for the first six songs of this 14-track release are virtually interchangeable, and the overreliance on ethereal string and keyboard complements leaves them noticeably unfunked.
Not until Track 7a remix of “Fill Me In”does producer Mark Hill deploy some much-needed bass. With the keys pushed way into the background, the cut is David’s best shot at a stateside hit. That said, the second half of Born to Do It quickly turns nondescript and leaden, reaching its low point with the experimental “Rewind,” which was wisely left for the very end of the release. “This goes out to all the DJs,” David proclaims on the vacuous, wannabe-dubby piece of dance-floor ephemera, putting aside his grating faux playahood and sounding for once like the wide-eyed club kid he really is.
Left to his own devices, David might come up with something more ear-worthy, but right now the guy’s flattery is of the sincerest form. Born to Do It proves that, when in Rome, the surest path to musicality is to do exactly as the Romans do. CP